The Supreme Court, Religion, And Intended Consequences

Ed Raymond

On May 7, 2014 when the six Roman Catholics and the three Jews on the U.S. Supreme Court sat and listened to the marshal of the Court speak the traditional words, “God save the United States and this honorable court,” I wonder what each was thinking. Five Catholics and one Jew had decided that the Board of Supervisors of Greece, New York had not violated the First Amendment’s “establishment clause”  of the Constitution of the United States by having an opening prayer, although 116 of their last 120 meetings were started with a Christian prayer. Three of the four non-Christian opening prayers were conducted by a Jewish rabbi, a believer in the Baha’i faith, and a Wiccan priestess who prayed to Athena and Apollo (both Greek gods) for guidance.
The Supreme Court can seat only about 250 court followers, and in its arrogance refuses to let hearings and decisions be televised. Their decisions are very important to everyone in the country. No justice should be paid until the Court accepts by law a 20th century communication device that is available in every jurisdiction in the land. We need to see eyes, expressions, body language, and puzzled stares levied by judges. We need to hear exclamations, groans, dumb and smart questions and answers, and silence from some.

33,000 Christian Denominations Occupy 335,000 Churches

As the Court came to order after the marshal’s prayer, I wonder if the justices knew while looking at the 250 curious spectators that, if all the major religions in the U.S. had each one seat, Court workers would have to bring in at least 60 folding chairs to accommodate the more than 310 major religions. If we had one representative just from the 33,000 Christian denominations in the country, we would fill the Fargodome, Civic Auditorium, Scheel’s Arena, Nemzek Fieldhouse, and the Concordia Fieldhouse. There are 335,000 Christian churches in the U.S. And we haven’t even started to count the non-Christians and the non-believers.
It’s an amazing list of religions imported with their practitioners from every country in the world. We have only 35 major Christian religious denominations while 127 “New Age” and 124 “Other” religions are recognized by the Internal Revenue Service for tax-deductible purposes. And new “religions” are formed each year. Does religion matter in government? Does one Buddhist or Hindu in a group of 100 Christians feel any religious pressure? Should levels of all government open meetings with a prayer to God, gods and goddesses, earth, wind, or fire, and to rattlesnakes? That was the question facing the Court. Did they consider the multi-religious and non-religious society we live in? What answer would Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana give if he felt any religious pressure among the Christians of Louisiana? Raised as a Hindu, he recently transformed to a Roman Catholic“evangelical”–for Louisiana and national political purposes.

The Fastest Growing Group? Non-Believers!

Accurate religious statistics are hard to come by. As an example, I have been told that the only way to remove your name from some Catholic church rolls is to write a letter requesting a drop.  Corky and I might be on the Catholic rolls in Jacksonville, North Carolina but we became liberal Lutherans 55 years ago. Actually, the second largest religious group in the U.S. is Roman Catholics who have left the church.
But the decision made by the Court in the Greece case does not answer whether a  religious or atheistic minority within a community feels comfortable enough with a “Jesus” prayer to then freely participate in discussing political decisions made by a city commission or board of supervisors. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the writer of a very mixed-up majority opinion, wrote that a prayer before a governmental meeting is traditional and ceremonial in substance. According to Kennedy it is fitting to “have a brief acknowledgment of their (governing body) belief in a higher body.”  Isn’t a prayer asking God to do something important? Otherwise, why bother? Kennedy seems to be saying, “We don’t expect the prayer to be answered anyway!”  I bet the 20 percent waiting to testify or participate in the decision-making who are non-believers feel the same way.
When I was teaching English literature I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing the writings of the 19th Century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. He was a very smart guy, learning Greek at age three so he could read Plato and the Greek classics, learning Latin at age eight so he could concentrate on Roman law and history. His most famous work is “On Liberty,” an important discussion of the role of an individual within a society. The following sentence is perhaps the most powerful in history containing principles of democracy: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Army Lt. General William Boykin: “I Knew My God Was Bigger Than His....”

Religions create many problems in a society. The total separation of church and state is essential. Worship in your churches, not in city halls and legislatures. Radical Muslims and evangelicals seem to cause the most trouble in the world. We are now in the middle of the 15th Crusade. We have our share of radicals poking around in the wounds of previous conflicts. Some are in military high commands.
Lt. Gen. William Boykin was deputy undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence in the Pentagon after he was commander of Delta Force in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia going after a Muslim warlord. He did not help relationships with Islam when he described the battle: “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol. We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this.” Boykin also insisted that George W. Bush was in the White House “because God put him there.” What a message to broadcast from the U.S.
military to Arab and Islam societies.
Religion is a personal belief. Does it belong in government or business meetings now in our very diverse society? In 1983 the Supreme Court held “that the opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles...of religious freedom.” But societies demand new rules to live by as they change. Over 20 percent of our population is now non-believers. That’s over 60 million people! Almost 35 percent of people under 30 have no religious affiliation! The tsunami of change is sweeping over us, presenting us with great challenges. As an example, where was same-sex marriage in 1983? Was it a “family value” then? It wasn’t even discussed in public. On May 15 the Washington Post published a map of “the rapidly evolving state of same-sex marriage” in the United States. Eighteen states with half our total population now allow same-sex marriages. Bans against same-sex marriage have been declared unconstitutional in six states, pending appeal. Same-sex marriage is banned in 32  states-but has been challenged in court in all but three-Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota. New Jersey just ended a ban. The tsunami is sweeping deep.

A Solution For Legislative Prayer–One Minute Of Silence For Prayer And Meditation

Justice Elena Kagan, a Jew, wrote a strong dissent from the Kennedy-majority opinion. She said: “Our public institutions belong to the Hindu and Buddhist as well as the Episcopalian or Methodist.” (I imagine she would also list “Jew.”) But she posed a more important question: “Would Christians in a predominately Jewish town feel their rights were protected if all public functions were presided over by a rabbi leading Jewish prayers? Or a Muslim town that has a muezzin give a traditional Muslim blessing before each meeting?” In countering the Kennedy idea that legislative prayer was ceremonial (thus not counting for very much with God!), Kagan added: “Religious expressions can never be merely ceremonial because they are statements of profound belief and deep meaning.”
If someone has evidence that God has answered positively a prayer canted at a public legislative meeting, please let me know. The country is such a mess He must have been answering prayers on sports events instead of paying attention to Congressional prayers. The current Congress has one Hindu, one Buddhist, and one atheist, whatever that means.
In a USA TODAY letter Cindy Joelle Owen published additional truths: “Thank goodness we don’t live in a nation where we are forced to follow a specific religion. We have the right to partake or not.  Have you ever been to a funeral where the service incorporated prayer? And maybe the family members are not your religion? You don’t have to partake. I am not a Catholic. I pray, silently, in my own way when I attend a Catholic wedding... it is a part of a person’s personal right to engage in spirituality.”  Amen! It’s not funny we are in a culture war over prayer–with thousands of principles that may–or may not–fit yours.

The Obscene, Insane, Weird, Baffling, And Bizarre In Religious Practices

There are probably a lot of non-believers who are like Woody Allen when he was asked about his religion: “If only God would give me a clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”
Then we have the homophobes who always use Leviticus verses in the Bible to call homosexuality an “abomination.” A quote from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the first actress to pay Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (the current “My Fair Lady”) gained 20th Century free-love notoriety by saying: “It doesn’t make any difference what you do in the bedroom as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”  Bible thumpers never seem to read further. Leviticus also condemns mixing two crops in a field (carrots and asparagus?), making garments of two different fabrics (goodby to polyester and cotton), the shaving of beards (Is that why men now  look like they have just joined the House of David baseball team?). Have you burned any priest’s daughters lately who have turned themselves into whores? Does your priest or minister have both of his testicles? If he has only one, he’s disqualified. A female minister? (Sorry, you pick the missing parts.) And slavery is OK as long as you steal, trade, or buy one from another country.
And then we have the religions that say prayer will cure all diseases and deformities. We have the Amish who treat cancer with prayer, herbs, and vitamins rather than chemotherapy and modern medicine. We have the mysterious science-fiction Church of Scientology with Tom Cruise, other planets, rich Hollywood actors and directors, and horror stories of slave labor. We have the “spiritual healing” of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science church.
We have the Tennessee Snake Handlers in 125 churches who refuse modern medical treatments if they are bitten by poisonous snakes while tonguing their weird religion. For some reason God lets many of them die in faithful agony. And then we have Kentucky Baptists who give away guns at Second Amendment celebrations across the state in order to attract members to the loving arms of Jesus Christ. Wasn’t it Isaiah who said: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore?”  These Baptists are beating swords into AK-47s, Bushmasters, 12-gauge semi-automatic Street Sweepers, and .50 caliber sniping rifles. I wonder if they have also adopted that WW II faith song “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition?” It would be fitting.
Religious people have used parts of the Bible to justify slavery, rape, murder, racial segregation, the abuse of gays, lesbians, and transgenders, and other horrible transgressions. Let’s remember, as an example, that we now have as many as 15,000 transgenders and 150,000 gays in the military defending us. Times do change.

Raymond is a former Marine officer and school board superintendent and resides in Detroit Lakes.